Category Archives: Radio Stuff

Thoughts about the radio industry

Sold : Dancing Hamster – £40m

The sale of a group of radio stations to a much bigger company often brings with it anxiety among staff, doubts over job security and a collective sigh among the anoraks that things will never quite be the same again – and wouldn’t it be nice to bring back some old heritage brand names.

Yet the news that Orion Media has sold its stations to Bauer has been largely well received, if not welcomed, by many industry observers. And it could well be a sign that the rose tinted glasses have finally been confined to the scrap heap. Which can only be a good thing for the new owners of Free Radio in the West Midlands and Gem 106 in the East Midlands.

Gem alone has steadily grown to become a key player in the market, and continues to evolve. Its early cheesey marketing – featuring a dancing hamster – has become a station that still plays big on personality and does well in the ratings. Breakfast presenters Sam and Amy recently marked ten years on air together – quite an achievement in a cut throat industry.

And Gem, like Free, has recently refreshed its playlist – there are far more “hot” (current) tracks mixed in with 80s and 90s classics. Tune in some hours are you could be forgiven for thinking you were listening to Capital.

All of this matters because the two Orion brands will now have to fit into Bauer’s existing portfolio. The most likely option is that all will become part of the main network, along with strong heritage names like Radio City in Liverpool, Glasgow’s Clyde and Newscastle’s Metro. All of these stations continue to perform well in large markets – and, just like Orion’s stations, have slowly evolved into a mix of contemporary and classic playlists.

Bauer also has a ready made second brand – the Greatest Hits Network – majoring on oldies and long established heritage presenters. This would easily fit into what’s currently the Free 80s slot on the AM and DAB dials in the West Midlands – although without confining the output to just one decade.

So everyone’s happy, right? Well of course there may be some savings to be had – and nobody wants to see job losses. But I’m told that the announcement yesterday was handled impeccably by both sides. Bauer sent senior managers to both Nottingham and Birmingnam to brief staff, there was apparently no air of hostility that can often be associated with sales.

Ultimately this consolidates the UK industry into two major players. Smaller groups will continue to thrive for the time being – and competition rules should ensure that commercial radio doesn’t become a monopoly.

But I don’t think we’ll see any more dancing hamsters.


Posted by on May 7, 2016 in Journalism, Radio Stuff


Can I have a “P” please, Bob?

Like music playlists, there is one aspect of our industry that can only be looked at subjectively. No matter how hard you try, it’s impossible to be impartial about personality. In recent months, it’s been well documented that BBC Local Radio is going through yet another period of attempting to define the “P” word with – you guessed it – a classroom training course. 

But the main question, highlighted this week by the BBC Editorial Standards Committee, considers whether personality can sometimes go to far.

Anyone who has witnessed an Iain Lee broadcast knows what to expect. He’s direct, unconventional and challenging. Which is presumably the main reason why BBC Three Counties hired him in the first place. Yet an investigation this week has concluded that Lee broke the rules on impartiality, mainly due to what was viewed as an “inappropriately combative” approach.

Of course, impartiality is one of the founding principles of the BBC, and as a journalist I try to respect that in my professional life (my blog, my views, is a different matter). Yet I wonder if judging an interview to be “inappropriately combative” is somewhat at odds with the push for more personality? Under such hard and fast rules, a presenter can’t win.

But as a union rep – standing up for the shop floor – another part of the ESC’s rationale concerns me. It suggested that robust interviews might deter others from calling in, for fear of encountering the same wrath. In Iain Lee’s case, he was interviewing two pre-arranged guests who were on the same side of the story. Surely they should have expected to be challenged, and firmly too?  What’s more, the principles of “holding to account” and playing “devil’s advocate” are enshrined – in as many words – within the BBC’s own Editorial Guidelines. Nevertheless, we are all to be “reminded ” of the need for respect in the coming months. I wonder if this will apply to network colleagues like John Humphreys?

As always, there is a balance to be achieved. It’s interesting that OFCOM assessed six complaints on this, but decided not to launch a formal investigation. And Iain Lee will soon be back on air, as part of the line up for the new commercial station Talk Radio.

Whatever the outcome, this ruling must not be allowed to stifle the principle of challenging interviews, not least when the guest is expressing extreme views. Nor should it deter managers from hiring talent like Iain Lee. By his own admission, he went too far.

But if we never took risks, radio would be boring.

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Posted by on March 10, 2016 in Journalism, Radio Stuff


Toys and Prams

Forget the US caucuses and the EU referendum. Because in broadcasting land, it must be Charter Renewal season. You can easily tell from the unedfying display of radio executives having public spats over whose network is best. And frankly, it’s sounding like a broken record. 

The latest attack on the BBC, which comes around almost as often as The Four Seasons on his station, is from Classic FM’s boss Sam Jackson, who has called on the head of Radio 3 to “stop aping” its output. As a biased observer, I’m bound to say this is laughable. But it does raise a fair point about the balance to be struck between what might loosely be divided into “popular” versus “public service” broadcasting.

When Classic FM first came on the air in 1992, it was certainly a breath of fresh air compared to the stuffy fare on Radio 3. Its birth – as the UK’s first national commercial radio station – was something of an accident. It was awarded the licence after another bid, promising variety and show tunes, failed to pass what the regulator called the “quality threshold” – in other words, being both financially viable and acceptable to the suits at the Radio Authority.

Classic FM is unashamedly populist – probably the only model which can turn a profit. And the brand is franchised around the world, being easy to duplicate in almost any territotiry with minimal copyright issues. It probably isn’t helpful, therefore, that the controller of Radio 3 Alan Davey has compared the station to MacDonalds.

It’s partly these comments that have promoted the backlash from  Jackson. But putting the name calling aside, is it really reasonable for commercial radio to demand that the BBC only broadcasts output which isn’t commercially viable? The suggestion – as with Strictly Come Dancing or daytimes on Radio 2 – is that the BBC somehow has no right to entertain the nation, to be something for the mass population.

It is, of course, no surprise to hear this guff churned out yet again, so close to negotiations to renew the BBC’s Charter and Licence Fee. Radio 3 may not be to everyone’s taste, but that doesn’t mean the BBC shouldn’t continue to attract  new listeners through popular programmes, and perhaps at the same time persuading them to try something a bit more serious.

It very much sounds like Classic FM is whingeing in the same way that Smooth moaned a few years ago about Radio 2, perhaps in the misguided hope of getting a few highbrow MPs to lobby the Culture Secretary. Critics also complain that the BBC has a guaranteed income, while conveniently forgetting that  it is constantly under review and scrutiny by several layers of management and regulation.

Like all radio stations, Classic FM has to recognise that the landscape has changed massively since that September day in 1992. It should also recognise that its sole competitor was one reason for its very existence.


Posted by on February 2, 2016 in Radio Stuff


“Pippa’s got me a cream horn!”

It’s 31st January 2016. Search “broadcaster” or “BBC” today and you’re more than likely to find a tribute to Sir Terry Wogan – and rightly so. But it’s also been the day when Devon has said goodbye to another radio voice who can genuinely claim the title of “legend”.

During my eleven months at Radio Devon, I had the privilege of occasionally brushing shoulders with Tony Beard. In the words of today’s news bulletins, he was as much as part of the station as the county itself. He lived, breathed and celebrated Devon in every way imaginable – but largely through his love and knowledge of the great outdoors. Tony gained the title “The Wag From Widecombe” – his home village on the edge of Dartmoor. He was in constant demand to appear at country shows, village hall talks and just about any event which required a voice.

There are many broadcasters who are described as having a “unique” on air style. But few could rightly claim that quality. Not Tony : when “Devon Requests” started on Sunday lunchtimes, you knew there really was nothing else like it on the radio.

“Us has got a postcard here – Mary says ‘Hullo, Tony and Darren – can you please play the recording of Glorious Devon as performed at the Sidmouth Folk Festival in 1978.’ Well, Mary, I didn’t think we could, but Darren’s only gone and found it!” Said recording would be followed by Nirvana – this is a request show that doesn’t discriminate. I would often be preparing for the 2pm news with the strains of Postman Pat, Madonna or The Seekers playing out.

Before the actual show, there’d be an instalment of Tony’s “Dartmoor Diary” – a simple observation of the weather, wildlife or some nugget of history. He’d also regularly appear as part of the gardening phone -in, manning the “Pest Desk” and dispensing advice on dealing with flies, bugs, rodents or foxes. All of which was interspersed with a chat about whichever cakes or biscuits the presenter had brought in. 

You might suggest that this glimpse of radio is seen through rose tinted glasses. After all, is this the kind of mix that still has a place in 2016? My answer. :  a resounding yes. Tony’s show remained one of the highest rating  Sunday programmes across the whole BBC Local network.

I tuned in this lunchtime to hear Darren (Cox, Tony’s co-presenter for 17 years) – a tremble in his voice as he shared memories with listeners. It turns out that when Tony first appeared on Radio Devon, some thought it was an actor putting on a comedy Devonian accent.

And that was another quality of this great broadcaster – just like Wogan, Tony would simply be himself.

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Posted by on January 31, 2016 in Radio Stuff


Rocks and hard places

I should open this blog with a disclaimer that these are my views as a Journlaist, and not necessarily those of my employer. The piece is meant as an observation of the relationship between reporters and their sources, and may well stimulate some debate on the subject.

Since the start of the year, I’ve been covering the story of a group in Nottingham who set up two makeshift camps, with the claim that they were supporting the homeless. They were also demanding that the city council opened up empty buildings as shelters, something which happened in Manchester.

As usual, it’s been something of a war of words between the activists and the authorities. But this one has been made all the more difficult by walls of silence on both sides – a somewhat unusual scenario when trying to accurately report the situation.

By their very nature, the activists – operating under the umbrella name Fightback Nottingham – were rather erratic in their behaviour towards the media. On some days, they were more than happy to portray themselves as modern day urban warriors, not only supporting the homeless people who were apparently sleeping in their tents, but sending our a wider, social, political message. Activism at its best, you might say.

But on other days it was a different story. “We’re not talking to you (the BBC) because you’ve twisted our words. We’ll only do live interviews because they can’t be edited.” Clearly those are editorial demands which we wouldn’t and couldn’t agree to with anybody.

Yet from the authorities, there’ve also been mixed messages. Officially, the City Council wouldn’t provide anyone for an interview. The policy seemed to be one of written statements, as getting into a debate might lead to difficult questions. Questions which we were unable to put in a broadcast environment. 

But off the record – though there for all to see on social media – were comments from senior council officers, and the head of Safe Nottingham (a police and council partnership) openly condemning the activists, calling them “hired anarchists” – before quickly retreating from their attack by hiding or deleting Tweets.

The challenge is that we all live in a 24/7 media society, fuelled by instant claim and counter claim. And that raises questions about the relationship between journalists and their sources. It might be argued that social media is king, since everybody has access to it all the time. Though it doesn’t help when some individuals choose to bulk block entire newsrooms from their accounts, lest they actually report or challenge what is being said.

The camps have now been cleared, the final one was being dismantled as court proceedings for eviction were still underway. But  there’ll doubtless be other fights in the pipeline : this weekend the war of words was taken to public buildings, where abusive slogans were chalked up. It remains to be seen who exactly has gained the upper hand.

Our job as journalists is to keep asking questions. And we will.


Posted by on January 17, 2016 in Journalism, Radio Stuff, The Training Zone


Mind Your Language

What do ISIS and The Daily Mail have in common? They both try to change behaviour through fear.

I can’t claim the credit for that assertion. It came from one of my friends when discussing the Dail Mail’s latest hateful and untrue article where it’s claimed the BBC has banned the term “terrorist” when referring to Islamic State. There is, apparently, “fury” that journalists are routinely substututing the word “militants” or “jihadists” in news coverage.

And I think I’d be furious too if – as claimed by the Mail – I were to receive an email from Editorial Policy each time I “slipped up”. Yet in the few weeks since the attacks in Paris, I’ve often referred to them in bulletins as “terrorist” incidents. I’ve produced discussion shows where we’ve openly asked “could Nottingnamshire be the scene of a terrorist attack”, and cconducted vox pops along the lines of “does the threat of terrorism worry you?”

I haven’t received a single email from Editorial Policy.

There was one potentially sensitive story (which I won’t detail here) where “upstairs” issued guidance on a terror-related issue. That guidance was discussed, digested and ultimately over-ruled by a local senior manager. Such sensible discussions often happen. After all, guidance is just that – and it’s usually the case that common sense wins the day.

Even the Mail quickly concedes that there is, in fact, no such ban, but goes on to say that the BBC – quite rightly – urges caution against pejorative terminology. In the same way as we wouldn’t say “ISIS terrorists”, nor would we say “brave RAF pilots”. It’s not a resposible, impartial broadcaster’s place to make such judgements. Terms like those are used, but only when attributed to a named source. Again, responsible journalism.

What isn’t responsible is a gung-ho rag littering its pages with the words “maniacs”. Or routinely running front page headlines and graphics which effectively amount to religious incitement, a crime punishable by a prison sentence.

In the past, it’s also true to say that political interference has clouded some of the language we use. The “Bedroom Tax” was revised to the “Spare Room Subsidy” after pressure from Whitehall. We were left with the silly situation of having to use the phrase “what critics call the Bedroom Tax”. It was less to do with a BBC ruling and more about the management caving in to pressure. I’d hate to think the same will happen this time around.

The Mail hides behind handy quotes from MPs to illustrate the alleged hysteria around the BBC’s actions. But it’s really just an excuse for it to do some more baseless bashing.

And the day I take lessons in ethics from the Daily Mail is the day I quit.

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Posted by on December 6, 2015 in Journalism, Radio Stuff


Ratings or Reputation?

Last week the latest audience ratings for UK radio were published. As usual there was more spinning from station managers than Alistair Campbell in a gym class armed with comedy plates. And, as usual, the raw numbers can never tell the whole story.

In unashamedly blowing my own trumpet, I’d like to think that my own sector – BBC Local Radio – trades less on audience figures alone, and more on distinctiveness. In other words, an element of public service that may not always pull in large numbers of listeners.

So it was initially refreshing to read the Radio Centre’s response to the BBC Trust’s current review of BBC Local services. In a rare fanfare of support, commercial radio’s trade body was bigging up the BBC’s role in providing high quality, in depth news coverage aimed at an older audience. But it turned out to be faint praise, going on to suggest that BBC Local Radio shouldn’t focus more on personality.

The report bemoans a recent strategy briefing, which recommended – among other things – that stations should put greater effort into bringing entertaining and engaging presentation back on air. Local Radio sits in a curious place within the BBC structure, being part of the News division rather than Radio. Down the years, programmers from all sides (including those who have a commercial background) have been banging on about personality being the key to success.

At the risk of again banging my own drum (though I was working elsewhere at the time)  it’s no coincidence that BBC Radio Nottingham’s breakfast show has just been named the best on BBC Local Radio at the Gillard Awards. Yes – it’s a self serving pat on the back – but the winning entry demonstrated how important persinality is : one clip of our reporter playing loud construction noises outside the council’s HQ after months of noise complaints from its housing tenants.

Commercial radio seen quite happy for BBC Locals to remain pigeon holed into “news” – but has the deluded idea that news and personality should never mix. Well, I hear no evidence of that on Radio X – where the excellent Dominic Byrne sits happily with Chris Moyles, yet retains complete authority when delivering bulletins. Or how about commercial radio’s best speech brand, LBC – does Nick Ferarri wear a dinner jacket and bow tie to relate the days’s big stories?

Ratings will always fluctuate, and it’s a harsh reality that no radio station can be complacent in retaining its audience. I stand by my argument  that public service sometimes means shockingly low numbers in the RAJARS. But equally, BBC local Radio cannot be expected to stand still simply because commercial radio’s having another mardy (look that word up if you need to).

It’s also worth remembering that only the BBC regularly subjects itself to such detailed self analysis and accountability. Something RadioCentre rarely has to be concerned about.

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Posted by on November 5, 2015 in Journalism, Radio Stuff, The Training Zone